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Zawgyi is a folklore character that is unique to Myanmar among all the countries in Asia. He is a mythical being adept in the art of alchemy and is said to have gained his supernatural skills through occult means. He inhabits thick forests near the Himalaya where he forages herbs for magical purposes. After searching for many years he obtained the Philosopher´s stone and thereby gained Zawgyi-hood.

Sometimes, with a touch of his magic wand he brings to life “illusory females” from trees bearing female-shaped fruits in order fulfill his carnal wishes.

The dance here illustrates his attitudes before and after becoming a Zwagyi. You will see him going about the forest, prancing with his wand, pulverizing herbs and gamboling in jubilation after acquiring the Stone.

Golden Mount Popa is a prominent geological feature of great historical importance in central Myanmar (not far from Bagan). The name (“Golden”) is attributed to the fact that it is abundantly cloaked in fragrant, yellow-flowered champa trees. It is the abode of Myanmar´s superior Spirits of higher rank, much as Mount Olympus in Greece.

The following is from folklore but is based on quasi-historical facts: Mai Wunna, a beautiful blonde princess was a sister of the king of Thaton, a capital city in lower Myanmar (contemporary with Bagan - 11/12th century). Estranged from her brother, because she was asexual and refused betrothal to a royal descendent, she lived in exile and alone in the forests of Mt. Popa (already established as the abode of high spirits). As a devout Buddhist she abstained from eating meat and lived solely on flowers and fruits. She generally wore the mask of a demon to frighten away foes and friends alike. Thus she was reputed to be a flower-eating demon.

Later she spontaneously became amorous, fell in love with a royal dispatcher of fantastic physique, and begot two able sons with him. Unfortunately, her spouse was then executed for being derelict in fetching flowers from the mount. As a result, he became a Spirit.

Mai Wunna´s two sons, when they grew up, became distinguished commandos in the Royal Army. Unfortunately they were also executed for neglect of duty, and were transformed into the two famous Spirits, the “Brother Nats” of Taung-Byone.

However that was not the end of it. The bad tidings of her sons untimely deaths caused Mai Wunna to die of heartbreak. So she became a Spirit as well and became duly enshrined in her habitat. She became “Super-Exalted” to supreme power in the Realm of Spirits.

The Guardian Spirit of Mt. Popa is mainly propitiated on important events to guard, broadly, against evil spirits.

The dancer, clad traditionally in regal apparel of green color, impersonates the Spirit. On her head is perched the mask of a demon. In her hands, she holds two quills of a peacock´s tail, the symbol of the sun, in order to banish Darkness (the evil element). She dances as an apparition with grace and subtlety. The orchestra plays special tunes to assist her in her work.

There are many references in the Pali and Sanskrit literature to the mythical birds with human head and torso, Kinnara (male) and Kinnari (female). According to the literature, the birds originated in prehistoric India. They appear in some of the discourses of the Lord Buddha himself. So it may be that they are mythical. Or, (do you think?) maybe they existed in some remote parts of the earth and became extinct.

In Myanmar, images of the Bird´s dancing styles are found painted and carved on the walls at Bagan and (even earlier) from the Pyu kingdoms.

The songs and dances describe the Bird´s happy re-union after a separation of 700 nights due to a heavy rainstorm and floods. The dance is a popular emblem of true love and has an ancient history that is kept alive by the Myanmar dance troupes.

The dancers are attired with flapping wings at their wrists, in contrast to wings at their arm-pits as is characteristic of other Asian countries. The dance of bird-like movements is very supple and fine, and intricately coordinated with the accompanying music.

In 1767, King Sinyushin of the Konboung Dynasty brought back Siamese captives to the Inwa (Ava) capital (which is 15 km to the south of here). Among the captives were Siamese court dancers who performed the Ramayana (Yama-Zat Taw) wearing masks.

In this epic, Rama is the hero and chief character, Sita is the heroine, and Dasa-Giri is the villain demon. In our segment, Rama is enticed away by the Golden Deer, who is a transmogrified form of the demon sister of Dasa-Giri. Dasa-Giri, himself is metamorphed as a Hermit.

Rama is seen gravely following the tracks of the alluring Deer. The Deer leaves subtle hints as a trail.

Rather than a classic, this dance is an example of contemporary Myanmar folk art. You will not find it performed by the “Zat Pwe” troupes.

The dance has appeared out of the custom of entertaining the crowd, especially volunteers taking part in Flag Days or at community charitable activities. Its purpose is to inspire people to donate and to do meritorious deeds for the betterment of next lives.

The names U Shwe Yoe and Daw Moe are fictitious (not part of any classic text) and chosen for their rhyming effect. There is no established melody for the dance. Instead the orchestra improvises any lively tune, or recorded music is sometimes used. Any casual citizen with a strong hobby and no formal dance training may perform. The roles are one Old Bachelor (U Shwe Yoe) and one Spinster (Daw Moe), the latter played by either a male or female dancer. The choreography is spontaneous and designed to give the audience the best medicine.

The costumes are bizarre and flamboyant, with the indispensable elements of Shwe Yoe´s (independently animated) moustache and a twirling parasol from the delta town of Pathien. In a jocular manner, he emotes his love and makes a pass at Daw Moe, while she responds evasively and artfully. The audience, often mostly children and old folk, clap loudly and encourage Shwe Yoe in his persistence.

The traditional oil lamp that is offered to the Lord Buddha is a lighted wick of cotton soaked in an oil-filled earthenware saucer. A lighted candle now substitutes in its place.

The dance is very appealing to the eyes. The performer´s hands are always upturned (to retain the oil). Elders who remember performing with traditional lamps say that the secret is to not let the lamp drop while, at the same time, conveying particular expressions with various attitudes of the hands and legs. “It is almost an ordeal”, they added.

We sing in praise of the Lord Buddha, his Disciples, and his teachings. We dance only prior to, or in commemoration of, deeds of merit and with a view to rejoicing the donor and sharing with the crowd. We do not dance or sing during the actual practice of the deed, before the Lord Buddha, or in the presence of monks.

U Mingyaw, alias Pakhan Kyaw, is a well-know Myanmar Spirit. There are a few different versions of his biography. One is that, being an adept horse-man and son of a trusted royal guardian, he was knighted and given the Count-ship of the country town of Pakhan in central Myanmar. However, once in office he indulged himself in drinking, gambling (especially cock fighting), and in womanizing. His deeds of valour were not recorded. On the other side of the ledger, his recorded misdeeds soared. He eventually had the audacity to dethrone and execute the king and others, including two young brothers, sons of a nobleman. These two brothers became famous Spirits (Nats) and went on to long careers of mischief that continues to this day (but that is another story). However, in their very first act, the two brothers used their new powers to pay back the Count in his own coin, causing the Count´s murder and his return as the Spirit U Mingyaw.

U Mingyaw continued in his bad habits, abusing alcohol and women, and “impressive with explicit promise and arrogant with astute retorts” (offenses that are difficult to translate into English).

When he takes on his human form, U Mingyaw takes relish in drinking toddy, the sap of the palmyra tree (aka the “toddy palm”), which he does in a very direct manner. His favorite hors-d´oeuvre, to go along with sap is fried chicken or fowl. Therefore the most effective propitiation is thought to be a pot of toddy and a fried fowl. Nowadays, many people think it best to keep up with fashion and offer him expensive foreign-made liquor.

U Mingyaw has many shrines in the towns of central Myanmar. Historically, he was primarily appeased by gamblers. But lately traders and businessmen have taken to propitiating him as well (?).

Petitioners believe that U Mingyaw will fulfill any wish that is made to him during his trance, although he usually expects a commission. Young men with a taste for drink adore him and readily join him in his dance when they are in a celebratory mood. Probably you have seen this even in your own country.

In our presentation, the Medium appeals to U Mingyaw by presenting him with a bottle of liquor in one hand and a fried fowl in the other. The dancer copies the drunken style of the Spirit in order to win his favor.

All-night performances, which combine melodrama, slap-stick, traditional dance, even pop music are called “Zat Pwe” in Myanmar. These seasonal events are staged in enclosed temporary bamboo theaters and are typically part of annual fund raising activities at pagoda festivals. The performers are traveling troupes, usually several dozen professional male and female dancers, musicians, comedians, and actors. Currently, there are about 30 Zat Pwe troupes based in Mandalay alone. However these troupes travel widely throughout the country and are frequently on the road. The Zat Pwe venue can be challenging to westerners who are not used to waiting through 6 hours of Myanmar drama, to get to the classical dance.

The Duet Dance, a standard part of the Zat Pwe, typically starts near 2- or 3-AM, and has a duration of about two hours. (Our version is more convenient.)

Generally the lead actors dance with the lead actresses. The male dancers make a display, often with highly athletic and inventive elements. The male and female dancers sing in duet and exchange lover´s vows.

There is often a competitive aspect to see who in the troupe can win the favor of the loudest cheers. During all of this, the orchestra must synchronize to the action occurring on the stage. When done with excellence, this dance can create national fame for the troupe.

There are about 135 national groups in Myanmar. The largest of these are the Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Bamar, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.

The beautiful Zwekabin mountain range (east of Yangon) is home to many Kayin. This country folk dance has been a tribal custom since time immemorial. Most young people, even today, look forward to taking part on special occasions.

The Harp (Saung-Gauk) is a traditional string instrument that is emblematic of Myanmar. It is based on seven-tone scales. The most ancient Harps had seven strings but this was expanded to sixteen, an adaptation that adds brilliance to the instrument.

The melody of the Harp traditionally leads the Myanmar Oboe, which in turn leads the Brass Gong Circle. The Myanmar Drum Circle follows last.

The Harp typifies the grace and grandeur of the ancient Myanmar culture. Listen carefully and you may have the same experience as people from centuries ago.

In 1953 and after reaching acclaim as a performing artist, Daw Oba Thaung (age 55), was appointed the first Instructor of Dance at the (then) State School of Music and Drama in Mandalay. She found herself at a dead end for lack of a set syllabus in classical dance.

She was keenly aware of the diluting influences in the contemporary performances due to the inclusion of elements from neighboring countries and modern media. She saw this as a threat to the national genius of the art form. Therefore she took on the task of capturing a kernel of genuine Myanmar dance art.

The result is a formulation of five dance courses intended as a five-year term of study. Each of the five courses is broken into dance sequences comprising a total of 125 stages, each stage of precisely ten minutes.
The first course is dance accompanied solely by rhythmic beating. The “kabya loot aka” (dance-without-verse) is synchronized to the beats of four drums (“tub-bado-bay”, “jay-jay”, “tub-jay”, and “tups-jay”) and clapper. The dancer must coordinate movements of body, legs and hands. As you hear it performed, you will find it catchy and may feel like taking part. You will find it good as a fitness exercise (although Daw Oba Thaung might have some corrections on your style.)

The Belus (demons) are ancient characters, thought to originate from a legendary race that roamed India and Myanmar circa 2000 BC. Buddhist literature describes them as primitive and feared by other races. Whether they were real or mythical, the Belus take an important spiritual role in our tales and in our hearts.

In literature, the Belus are described as having transmogrifying powers-- an ability to take on different physical appearances. There are 24 different classical demon forms, each with it´s own name and role in stories and plays. One of the best-known is Dasa-Giri, a demon in the Indian Ramayana epic. The dancer here is taking on that character.

In any of his forms, the Belus embodies the Devil. He is terrifying, overbearing and diabolical by nature. But he has a gentle side also. In this dance, Dasa-Giri offers a bouquet of flowers to a dainty damsel. The demure lady is unable to overlook the beastly side and declines his darling present. The demon then expresses his dejection at the refusal.

This dance originates from the time of the Pyu kingdoms (5th-10th century). A small number of relatively crude musical instruments were used and the dance style is slow and sedate. The costumes of dancers, as depicted in wall paintings, were scanty and revealing. Here, we have had to adapt them a bit. Our apologies that we cannot be more historically correct.

In Myanmar, it is traditional to make an offering of a green coconut, three hands of bananas, and a few other accessories, to the Guardian Spirit of Land (a Nat) prior to an important event such as an inauguration. In fact, it is considered essential to do so in order to ward off both natural and supernatural calamities, such as, respectively, inauspicious weather and malevolent influences. This appeasement of the Spirit is usually done by a professional Spirit Medium.

The dancer here is demonstrating a typical ceremony. She is generally attired in red silk, including a red headband and, around the chest, a tightly knotted red scarf. With the offerings on a tray, she dances in propitiation and repeats the sequence three times. As she dances she sings ritual songs to the 37 National Nats (Spirits) and the Local Nat.

At the onset, the dance is delicate and the music legato. After a verbal injunction (“pelt of provocation”), the dancer quickens to the rising intensity of the music. As the Medium enjoins the Spirits, the movements and the music reach a frenzied crescendo.

Classical cane ball is probably the national sport of Myanmar. The game can be traced at least to the Pyu kingdoms of lower Myanmar. A silver cane ball, excavated from Thayekhittaya (now Pyay), was dated by archaeologists to 500-700 AD. The sport is now played in many countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However the style of play differs according to nationality and in most cases, excluding Myanmar, has been transformed nearly completely into a competition between two teams.

Cane ball is popular at all levels of play for fitness and entertainment, and most males in Myanmar learn to play to some degree. People play both as a solo exercise and in groups (usually six players). Styles of individual and team play are highly stylized with dramatic postures and artistic ball handling.

Intentional touching of the ball with hands or elbows is disallowed. This leaves kicking, toeing, or decelerating the ball with the foot (inside-, or outer-edge, instep, toe, sole, heel, ankle) knee, head, back, shoulder, and any other appendage.

Cane ball competitions are an important part of the Thingyan (New Year) festival but expert players are generally seen entertaining the crowd in the early evening at many other festivals.

In our demonstration we are lucky to have a player of extraordinary skill.

Apprenticeship in Myanmar Dance
To achieve star status, a classical Myanmar dancer needs more than dance skills and mastery of a repertory. He must have a fine vocal ability, a handsome appearance, and be of medium build, neither too fat nor too thin. To add to this, he must have good dramatic skills and be able to convey many different roles through gesture and facial expression. Finally he must have eloquence and ability to connect to an audience in speech.

A student can undergo training by a coach and usually can become a skillful dancer in a relatively short period of time. But he will still fall short in singing and dramatic roles. It also takes much longer to learn the classic songs by heart and to master the art of composing original music and lyrics.

The Apprentice Dancer has reached the intermediate stage in this training. Most generally, he or she is given opportunities to perform between acts with a professional troupe or to take occasional roles as a stand-in.

(Copyright Mintha Theater)